Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Engaging with a Post-Election Khamenei Regime

Matthew Yglesias writes about the possibility of an engagement strategy should Khamenei regime defeat the opposition:
I would add to that the observation that a regime win would simply make me much less confident that engagement will work. The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system—guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries.
On this point, I think Yglesias is wrong. While engagement with a Khamenei regime that, should it survive, will have brutally repressed its people would be unappealing, the fundamental calculus of engagement remains the same. Engagement is not premised on Khamenei reaching out and working with the pragmatists within Iran (domestic pragmatists) but rather on the notion that he is a pragmatist – or, more precisely, self-interested. The first principle underlying engagement are that Khamenei’s-and by extension, Iran’s-most basic goal is to retain power. This goal supersedes all other, ancillary goals like extending Iranian influence in the Middle East or, perhaps, attaining regional hegemony. Indeed, it is Khamenei’s desire to retain power that is driving his brutal repression of his own people and fundamentally upsetting the mechanics of the Islamic Republic.

The engagement strategy basically recognizes that Iran’s regime desires survival. Survival is difficult when the United States and Israel threaten regime change. Reaching an accommodation with the United States whereby the United States recognizes the Iranian government and forswears regime change would do a great deal to ensure the Iranian regime’s survival. This is the carrot.

The stick, of course, is continued instability due to hostility with the United States and Israel, which threaten the regime’s survival. This instability also likely drives Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Thus, though Khamenei’s regime is becoming daily a less appealing partner in negotiations, its brutal repression does not fundamentally alter the forces which drive an engagement strategy. That repression may, in fact, demonstrate how off-base the neoconservatives’ Big Lie about a messianic and unstable Iran was.

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